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Flag of the Iroquois Confederacy.svg
Total population
approx. 125,000
(80,000 in the U.S., 45,000 in Canada)
Regions with significant populations
Northern Iroquoian (including Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, Tuscarora), English, French
Longhouse Religion,
Karihwiio,[clarification needed]
Kanoh'hon'io,[clarification needed]
Kahni'kwi'io,[clarification needed]
Christianity, others

The Iroquois (/ˈɪrəkwɔɪ/ or /ˈɪrəkwɑː/), also Haudenosaunee (/ˈhdənˈʃni/) or Rotinonshionni (ɹ̥oʊʈi̽no̞dʒi̽oʊni̽),[1] are a historically powerful and important northeast Native American confederacy. They were known during the colonial years to the French as the "Iroquois League," and later as the "Iroquois Confederacy," and to the English as the "Five Nations" (before 1722), and later as the "Six Nations," comprising the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora peoples.

The Iroquois have absorbed many other peoples into their cultures as a result of warfare, adoption of captives, and by offering shelter to displaced peoples.

The historic Erie, Susquehannock, and Wyandot (Huron), all independent peoples, spoke Iroquoian languages. In the larger sense of linguistic families, they are often considered Iroquoian peoples because of their similar languages and cultures, all culturally and linguistically descended from the Proto-Iroquoian people and language; but they were traditionally enemies of the nations in the Iroquois League.[2]

In 2010, more than 45,000 enrolled Six Nations people lived in Canada, and about 80,000 in the United States.

Iroquois Confederacy

The history of the Iroquois Confederacy goes back to its formation by the Peacemaker in the 12th or 15th centuries, bringing together five distinct nations in the southern Great Lakes area into "The Great League of Peace".[3] Each nation within the Iroquoian family had a distinct language, territory and function in the League. Iroquois influence extended into present-day Canada, westward along the Great Lakes and down both sides of the Allegheny mountains into present-day Virginia and Kentucky and into the Ohio Valley.

In Mohawk, the official language of the full Council, the overall name was Rotinonsionni or Hotinonsionni; the Seneca referred to them as Goano'ganoch'sa'jeh'seroni[4] or Ganonsyoni;[3] and in Tuscarora, they are known as Akunęhsyę̀niˀ (Rudes, B., Tuscarora English Dictionary, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999) or the "Six Nations," (the Five Nations and Five Nations of the Iroquois before 1722).

The League is governed by a Grand Council, an assembly of fifty chiefs or sachems, each representing one of the clans of one of the nations.[5]

The original Iroquois League (as the French knew them) or Five Nations (as the British knew them), occupied large areas of present-day New York State up to the St. Lawrence River, west of the Hudson River, and south into northwestern Pennsylvania. The League was composed of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca nations. In 1722 the Tuscarora tribe joined the League, having migrated from the Carolinas after being displaced by Anglo-European settlement. Also an Iroquoian-speaking people, the Tuscarora were accepted into what became the Six Nations.

Other Iroquoian-speaking peoples, such as the Erie, Susquehannock, Huron (Wendat) and Wyandot, lived at various times along the St. Lawrence River, and around the Great Lakes. In the American Southeast, the Cherokee were an Iroquoian-language people who had migrated to that area centuries before European contact. None of these were part of the Haudenosaunee. Those on the borders of their territory in the Great Lakes region competed and warred with the Haudenosaunee.

The Iroquois and most Iroquoian peoples have a matrilineal kinship system; with descent and inheritance passing through the maternal lines, children are considered born into their mother's clan and take their social status from her family. The clan mothers, the elder women of each clan, are highly respected. The women elders nominate the chief for life from the clan, and own the symbols of his office.

When Europeans first arrived in North America, the Haudenosaunee were based in what is now the northeastern United States, primarily in what is referred to today as Central New York west of the Hudson River and through the Finger Lakes region, and upstate New York along the St. Lawrence River area downstream to today's Montreal.[6]

French, Dutch and British colonists in both Canada and the Thirteen Colonies recognized a need to gain favor with the Iroquois people, who occupied a significant portion of lands west of colonial settlements. In addition, these peoples established lucrative fur trading with the Iroquois, which was favorable to both sides. The colonists also sought to establish positive relations to secure their borders.

For nearly 200 years the Iroquois were a powerful factor in North American colonial policy-making decisions. Alignment with Iroquois offered political and strategic advantages to the colonies but the Iroquois preserved considerable independence. Some of their people settled in mission villages along the St. Lawrence River, becoming more closely tied to the French. While they participated in French raids on Dutch and later English settlements, where some Mohawk and other Iroquois settled, in general the Iroquois resisted attacking their own peoples.

The Iroquois remained a politically unique, undivided, large Native American polity up until the American Revolution. The League kept its treaty promises to the British Crown. But when the British were defeated, they ceded the Iroquois territory without consultation; many Iroquois had to abandon their lands in the Mohawk Valley and elsewhere and relocate in the northern lands retained by the British.

The Iroquois League has also been known as the "Iroquois Confederacy". Modern scholars distinguish between the League and the Confederacy.[7][8][9] According to this interpretation of the scholars, the Iroquois League refers to the ceremonial and cultural institution embodied in the Grand Council, while the Iroquois Confederacy is the decentralized political and diplomatic entity that emerged in response to European colonization. According to that theory, "The League" still exists. The Confederacy dissolved after the defeat of the British and allied Iroquois nations in the American Revolutionary War.[7] Today's Iroquois/Six Nations people do not make any distinction between "The League" and "the Confederacy" and use the terms interchangeably.

After the defeat of the British and their Iroquois allies in the American Revolutionary War, Britain ceded most of the Iroquois territory, without bringing their allies to the negotiating table. Many of the Iroquois migrated to Canada, forced out of New York because of hostility to the British allies. Those remaining in New York were required to live mostly on reservations. In 1784, a total of 6,000 Iroquois had to confront 240,000 New Yorkers, with land-hungry New Englanders poised to migrate west. "Oneidas alone, who were only 600 strong, owned six million acres, or about 2.4 million hectares. Iroquoia was a land rush waiting to happen."[10]

In addition to the major cessions of Iroquois land, the Oneida and others who gained reservations in New York faced increasing pressures for their lands. By the War of 1812, they had lost control of considerable property.



Knowledge of Iroquois history stems from Haudenosaunee oral tradition, archaeological evidence, accounts from Jesuit missionaries, and subsequent European historians. Historian Scott Stevens credits the early modern European value for the written word over oral tradition and cultures as contributing to a prejudiced, racialized element within writings about the Iroquois that continued into the 19th century.[11] The historiography of the Iroquois people is therefore a topic of much debate, especially regarding the American colonial period.[12][13]

Jesuit accounts of the Iroquois portrayed them as savages because of comparisons to French culture; the Jesuits perceived them to lack government, law, letters, and religion.[14]:p.153 Eighteenth-century English historiography focuses on the diplomatic relations with the Iroquois, with visualizations such as John Verelst's Four Mohawk Kings and publications such as the AngloIroquoian treaty proceedings printed by Benjamin Franklin.[14]:p.161 One historical narrative persistent in the 19th and 20th centuries casts the Iroquois as "an expansive military and political power ...[who] subjugated their enemies by violent force and for almost two centuries acted as the fulcrum in the balance of power in colonial North America".[14]:p.148 Historian Scott Stevens noted that the Iroquois also began to influence the writing of their history in the 19th century, including the Mohawk Joseph Brant, and Tuscarora David Cusick. Seneca John Arthur Gibson (1850 – 1912) was an important figure of his generation in rendering versions of Iroquois history in epics on the Peacemaker.[15] Notable women historians among the Iroquois emerged in the following decades, including Laura "Minnie" Kellog (Oneida, 1880–1949) and Alice Lee Jemison (Seneca, 1901–1964).[14]:p.162

Formation of the League

Iroquois painting of Tadodaho receiving two Mohawk chiefs

The Iroquois League was established prior to European contact. Reliable sources link the origins of the Iroquois confederacy to 1142 and an agricultural shift when corn was adopted as a staple crop. [16] Many archaeologists and anthropologists believe that the League was formed sometime between about 1450 and 1600.[17][18] Arguments have been made for an earlier date.[note1 1]

File:Plummer Hiawatha.jpg
Meeting of Hiawatha and Deganawidah by Sanford Plummer

One theory argues that the League formed shortly after a solar eclipse on August 31, 1142, an event thought to be expressed in oral tradition about the League's origins.

[19][20] [21] Anthropologist Dean Snow argues that the archaeological evidence does not support a date earlier than 1450, and that recent claims for a much earlier date "may be for contemporary political purposes".[22]:p.231 In contrast, other scholars note that when anthropological studies were made, only male informants were consulted, even though the Iroquois people had distinct oral traditions held by males and females, thus excluding half of the historical story which was told by women. [23] For this reason, origin tales tend to emphasize Deganawidah and Hiawatha while the role of Jigonsaseh largely remains unknown because this part of the oral history was held by women. [23]

According to tradition, the League was formed through the efforts of two men and one woman. They were Dekanawida, sometimes known as the Great Peacemaker, Hiawatha, and Jigonhsasee, known as the Mother of Nations, whose home acted as a sort of United Nations. They brought together two other men to create the union among tribes. Those men were tribal leaders Dekanawidah and Tadadaho. These five brought the Peacemaker's message, known as the Great Law of Peace, to the squabbling Iroquoian nations, who were fighting, raiding and feuding with one another and other tribes. The nations who joined the League were those who still compose it today: the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca,

According to legend, an evil Onondaga chieftain named Tadodaho was the last converted to the ways of peace by The Great Peacemaker and Hiawatha. He was offered the position as the titular chair of the League's Council, representing the unity of all nations of the League.[24] This is said to have occurred at Onondaga Lake near present-day Syracuse, New York. The title Tadodaho is still used for the League's chair, the fiftieth chief who sits with the Onondaga in council.

With the formation of the League, the internal conflicts came to an end. The political cohesion of the Iroquois rapidly became one of the strongest forces in 17th- and 18th-century northeastern North America. The editors of American Heritage magazine suggest the Iroquois spokesmen were politically sophisticated, and as manipulative as many a modern politician.[25]

According to one theory of early Iroquois history, after becoming united in the League, the Iroquois invaded the Ohio River Valley in present-day Kentucky to seek additional hunting grounds. They displaced about 1200 Siouan-speaking tribepeople of the Ohio River valley, such as the Quapaw (Akansea), Ofo (Mosopelea), and Tutelo and other closely related tribes out of the region. These tribes migrated to regions around the Mississippi River and the piedmont regions of the east coast.[26] The explorer Robert La Salle in the 17th century identified the Mosopelea as among the Ohio Valley peoples defeated by the Iroquois in the early 1670s, during the Beaver Wars.[27] As has been noted above, there were peoples who spoke languages in the same linguistic family, but who were not part of the League.


In Reflections in Bullough's Pond, historian Diana Muir argues that the pre-contact Iroquois were an imperialist, expansionist culture whose cultivation of the corn/beans/squash agricultural complex enabled them to support a large population. They made war primarily against neighboring Algonquian peoples. Muir uses archaeological data to argue that the Iroquois expansion onto Algonquian lands was checked by the Algonquian adoption of agriculture. This enabled them to support their own populations large enough to have sufficient warriors to defend against the threat of Iroquois conquest.[28] The People of the Confederacy dispute whether any of this historical interpretation relates to the League of the Great Peace which they contend is the foundation of their heritage.[citation needed]

Engraving based on a drawing by Champlain of his 1609 voyage. It depicts a battle between Iroquois and Algonquian tribes near Lake Champlain

The Iroquois may be the Kwedech described in the oral legends of the Mi'kmaq nation of Eastern Canada. These legends relate that the Mi'kmaq in the late pre-contact period had gradually driven their enemies – the Kwedech – westward across New Brunswick, and finally out of the Lower St. Lawrence River region. The Mi'kmaq named the last-conquered land Gespedeg or "last land," from which the French derived Gaspé. The "Kwedech" are generally considered to have been Iroquois, specifically the Mohawk; their expulsion from Gaspé by the Mi'kmaq has been estimated as occurring c. 1535–1600.[29][page needed]

Around 1535, Jacques Cartier reported Iroquoian-speaking groups on the Gaspé peninsula and along the St. Lawrence River. Archeologists and anthropologists have defined the St. Lawrence Iroquoians as a distinct and separate group (and possibly several discrete groups), living in the villages of Hochelaga and others nearby (near present-day Montreal), which had been visited by Cartier. By 1608, when Samuel de Champlain visited the area, that part of the St. Lawrence River valley had no settlements, but was controlled by the Mohawk as a hunting ground. On the Gaspé peninsula, Champlain encountered Algonquian-speaking groups. The precise identity of any of these groups is still debated.

The Iroquois became well known in the southern colonies in the 17th century by this time. After the first English settlement in Jamestown, Virginia (1607), numerous 17th-century accounts describe a powerful people known to the Powhatan Confederacy as the Massawomeck, and to the French as the Antouhonoron. They were said to come from the north, beyond the Susquehannock territory. Historians have often identified the Massawomeck / Antouhonoron as the Haudenosaunee. Other Iroquoian-language tribes included the Erie, who were destroyed by the Iroquois in 1654 over competition for the fur trade.[30][page needed]

Between 1665 and 1670, the Iroquois established seven villages on the northern shores of Lake Ontario in present-day Ontario, collectively known as the "Iroquois du Nord" villages. The villages were all abandoned by 1701.[31]

Over the years 1670–1710, the Five Nations achieved political dominance of much of Virginia west of the fall line and extending to the Ohio River valley in present-day West Virginia and Kentucky. As a result of the Beaver Wars, they pushed Siouan-speaking tribes out and reserved the territory as a hunting ground by right of conquest. They finally sold the British colonists their remaining claim to the lands south of the Ohio in 1768 at the Treaty of Fort Stanwix.

Map of the New York tribes before European arrival:

Beaver Wars

Beginning in 1609, the League engaged in a decades-long series of wars, the so-called Beaver Wars, against the French, their Huron allies, and other neighboring tribes, including the Petun, Erie, and Susquehannock. Trying to control access to game for the lucrative fur trade, they put great pressure on the Algonquian peoples of the Atlantic coast (the Lenape or Delaware), the Anishinaabe peoples of the boreal Canadian Shield region, and not infrequently fought the English colonies as well. During the Beaver Wars, they were said to have defeated and assimilated the Huron (1649), Petun (1650), the Neutral Nation (1651),[32][33] Erie Tribe (1657), and Susquehannock (1680).[34] The traditional view is that these wars were a way to control the lucrative fur trade in order to access European goods on which they had become dependent.[35][page needed][36][page needed]

Recent scholarship has elaborated on this view, arguing that the Beaver Wars were an escalation of the "Mourning Wars", which were an integral part of early Iroquoian culture.[37] This view suggests that the Iroquois launched large-scale attacks against neighboring tribes in order to avenge or replace the massive number of deaths resulting from battles or smallpox epidemics.

In 1628, the Mohawk defeated the Mahican to gain a monopoly in the fur trade with the Dutch at Fort Orange (present-day Albany), New Netherland. The Mohawk would not allow northern native peoples to trade with the Dutch. In 1645, a tentative peace was forged between the Iroquois and the Huron, Algonquin, and French.

In 1646, Jesuit missionaries at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons went as envoys to the Mohawk lands to protect the fragile peace of the time. Mohawk attitudes toward the peace soured while the Jesuits were traveling, and their warriors attacked the party en route. The missionaries were taken to the village of Ossernenon (near present-day Auriesville, New York), where the moderate Turtle and Wolf clans recommended setting the priests free. Angered, members of the Bear clan killed Jean de Lalande and Isaac Jogues on October 18, 1646. The Catholic Church has commemorated the two French priests as among the eight North American Martyrs.

In 1649 during the Beaver Wars, the Iroquois used recently purchased Dutch guns to attack the Huron, who were allied with the French. These attacks, primarily against the Huron towns of Taenhatentaron (St. Ignace) and St. Louis in Michigan, were the final battles that effectively destroyed the Huron Confederacy.[38] From 1651 to 1652, the Iroquois attacked the Susquehannock, located to their south in present-day Pennsylvania, without sustained success.

In the early 17th century, the Iroquois Confederacy was at the height of its power, with a total population of about 12,000 people.[39] In 1653 the Onondaga Nation extended a peace invitation to New France. An expedition of Jesuits, led by Simon Le Moyne, established Sainte Marie de Ganentaa in 1656 in their territory. The Jesuits were forced to abandon the mission by 1658 as hostilities resumed, possibly because of the sudden death of 500 native people from an epidemic of smallpox, a European infectious disease to which they had no immunity.

From 1658 to 1663, the Iroquois were at war with the Susquehannock and their Lenape and Province of Maryland allies. In 1663, a large Iroquois invasion force was defeated at the Susquehannock main fort. In 1663, the Iroquois were at war with the Sokoki tribe of the upper Connecticut River. Smallpox struck again, and through the effects of disease, famine, and war, the Iroquois were under threat of extinction. In 1664, an Oneida party struck at allies of the Susquehannock on Chesapeake Bay.

In 1665, three of the Five Nations made peace with the French. The following year, the Canadian Governor sent the Carignan regiment under Marquis de Tracy to confront the Mohawk and the Oneida. The Mohawk avoided battle, but the French burned their villages and crops. In 1667, the remaining two Iroquois Nations signed a peace treaty with the French and agreed to allow their missionaries to visit their villages. This treaty lasted for 17 years.


Iroquois conquests 1638–1711

Around 1670, the Iroquois drove the Siouan-speaking Mannahoac tribe out of the northern Virginia Piedmont region. They began to claim ownership of the territory by right of conquest. In 1672, the Iroquois were defeated by a war party of Susquehannock. The Iroquois appealed to the French for support and asked Governor Frontenac to assist them against the Susquehannock.

It would be a shame for him to allow his children to be crushed, as they saw themselves to be ... they not having the means of going to attack their fort, which was very strong, nor even of defending themselves if the others came to attack them in their villages.[40]

Some[which?] old histories state that the Iroquois defeated the Susquehannock during this time period. As no record of a defeat has been found, historians have concluded that no defeat occurred.[40] In 1677, the Iroquois adopted the majority of the Iroquoian-speaking Susquehannock into their nation.[41]

By 1677, the Iroquois formed an alliance with the English through an agreement known as the Covenant Chain. Together they battled to a standstill the French, who were allied with the Huron. These Iroquoian people had been a traditional and historic foe of the Confederacy. The Iroquois colonized the northern shore of Lake Ontario and sent raiding parties westward all the way to Illinois Country. The tribes of Illinois were eventually defeated, not by the Iroquois, but by the Potawatomi.

In 1679, the Susquehannock, with Iroquois help, attacked Maryland's Piscataway and Mattawoman allies. Peace was not reached until 1685.

Map showing dates Iroquois claims relinquished, 1701-1796. Note: In the 1701 Nanfan Treaty, the Five Nations abandoned their nominal claims to "beaver hunting" lands north of the Ohio in favor of England; however, these areas were still de facto controlled by other tribes allied with France.

In 1684, the Iroquois invaded Virginia and Illinois territory again and unsuccessfully attacked French outposts in the latter. Trying to reduce warfare in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, later that year, the Virginia Colony agreed in a conference at Albany to recognize the Iroquois' right to use the North-South path, known as the Great Warpath, running east of the Blue Ridge, provided they did not intrude on the English settlements east of the fall line.

In 1687, Jacques-René de Brisay de Denonville, Marquis de Denonville, Governor of New France from 1685 to 1689, set out for Fort Frontenac with a well-organized force. They met with 50 hereditary sachems from the Onondaga council fire, who came under a flag of truce. Denonville recaptured the fort for New France and seized, chained, and shipped the 50 Iroquois chiefs to Marseilles, France, to be used as galley slaves.

He ravaged the land of the Seneca, landing a French armada at Irondequoit Bay, striking straight into the seat of Seneca power, and destroying many of its villages. Fleeing before the attack, the Seneca moved farther west, east and south down the Susquehanna River. Although great damage was done to the Seneca homeland, the Senecas' military might was not appreciably weakened. The Confederacy and the Seneca developed an alliance with the English who were settling in the east. The destruction of the Seneca land infuriated the members of the Iroquois Confederacy. On August 4, 1689, they retaliated by burning to the ground Lachine, a small town adjacent to Montreal. Fifteen hundred Iroquois warriors had been harassing Montreal defenses for many months prior to that.

They finally exhausted and defeated Denonville and his forces. His tenure was followed by the return of Frontenac, who succeeded Denonville as Governor for the next nine years (1689–1698). Frontenac had been arranging a new plan of attack to lessen the effects of the Iroquois in North America. Realizing the danger of continuing to hold the sachems, he located the 13 surviving leaders of the 50 originally taken and returned with them to New France in October 1689.

In 1696, Frontenac decided to take the field against the Iroquois, although at this time he was seventy-six years of age. On July 6, he left Lachine at the head of a considerable force and traveled to the village of the Onondaga, where he arrived a month later. With support from the French, the Algonquian nations drove the Iroquois out of the territories north of Lake Erie and west of present-day Cleveland, Ohio, regions which they had conquered during the Beaver Wars.[42] In the meantime, the Iroquois had abandoned their villages. As pursuit was impracticable, the French army commenced its return march on August 10. Under Frontenac's leadership, the Canadian militia became increasingly adept at guerrilla warfare, taking the war into Iroquois territory and attacking a number of English settlements. The Iroquois never threatened the French colony again.[43]

During King William's War (North American part of the War of the Grand Alliance), the Iroquois were allied with the English. In July 1701, they concluded the "Nanfan Treaty", deeding the English a large tract north of the Ohio River. The Iroquois claimed to have conquered this territory 80 years earlier. France did not recognize the validity of the treaty, as it had settlements in the territory at that time and the English had virtually none. Meanwhile, the Iroquois were negotiating peace with the French; together they signed the Great Peace of Montreal that same year.

French and Indian Wars

After the 1701 peace treaty with the French, the Iroquois remained mostly neutral. During Queen Anne's War (North American part of the War of the Spanish Succession), they were involved in planned attacks against the French. Peter Schuyler, mayor of Albany, arranged for three Mohawk chiefs and a Mahican chief (known incorrectly as the Four Mohawk Kings) to travel to London in 1710 to meet with Queen Anne in an effort to seal an alliance with the British. Queen Anne was so impressed by her visitors that she commissioned their portraits by court painter John Verelst. The portraits are believed to be the earliest surviving oil portraits of Aboriginal peoples taken from life.[44]

The four "Mohawk Kings" who travelled to London in 1710.

In the first quarter of the 18th century, the Iroquoian-speaking Tuscarora fled north from the pressure of British colonization of North Carolina and intertribal warfare; they had been subject to having captives sold into Indian slavery. They petitioned to become the sixth nation of the Iroquois Confederacy. This was a non-voting position, but they gained the protection of the Haudenosaunee.

The Iroquois program toward the defeated tribes favored assimilation within the 'Covenant Chain' and Great Law of Peace, over wholesale slaughter. Both the Lenni Lenape, and the Shawnee were briefly tributary to the Six Nations, while subjected Iroquoian populations emerged in the next period as the Mingo, speaking a dialect like that of the Seneca, in the Ohio region.

Iroquois engaging in trade with Europeans, 1722

In 1721 and 1722, Lt. Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia concluded a new Treaty at Albany with the Iroquois, renewing the Covenant Chain and agreeing to recognize the Blue Ridge as the demarcation between Virginia Colony and the Iroquois. But, as European settlers began to move beyond the Blue Ridge and into the Shenandoah Valley in the 1730s, the Iroquois objected. Virginia officials told them that the demarcation was to prevent the Iroquois from trespassing east of the Blue Ridge, but it did not prevent English from expanding west. Tensions increased over the next decades, and the Iroquois were on the verge of going to war with the Virginia Colony. In 1743, Governor Gooch paid them the sum of 100 pounds sterling for any settled land in the Valley that was claimed by the Iroquois. The following year at the Treaty of Lancaster, the Iroquois sold Virginia all their remaining claims in the Shenandoah Valley for 200 pounds in gold.[45]

During the French and Indian War (the North American frontier of the Seven Years' War), the Iroquois sided with the British against the French and their Algonquian allies, who were traditional enemies. The Iroquois hoped that aiding the British would also bring favors after the war. Few Iroquois warriors joined the campaign. In the Battle of Lake George, a group of Catholic Mohawk (from Kahnawake) and French forces ambushed a Mohawk-led British column; the Mohawk were deeply disturbed as they had created their confederacy for peace among the peoples and had not had warfare against each other.

After the war, to protect their alliance, the British government issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, forbidding Anglo-European (white) settlements beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Colonists largely ignored the order, and the British had insufficient soldiers to enforce it.

Faced with confrontations, the Iroquois agreed to adjust the line again in the Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1768). Sir William Johnson, 1st Baronet, British Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern District, had called the Iroquois nations together in a grand conference in western New York, which a total of 3,102 Indians attended.[10] They had long had good relations with Johnson, who had traded with them and learned their languages and customs. As Alan Taylor noted in his history, The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (2006), the Iroquois were creative and strategic thinkers. They chose to sell to the British Crown all their remaining claim to the lands between the Ohio and Tennessee rivers, which they did not occupy, hoping by doing so to draw off English pressure on their territories in the Province of New York.[10]

American Revolution

Lithograph of the Mohawk war and political leader Thayendanegea or Joseph Brant

During the American Revolution, the Iroquois first tried to stay neutral. Pressed to join one side or the other, the Tuscarora and the Oneida sided with the colonists, while the Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, and Cayuga remained loyal to Great Britain, with whom they had stronger relationships. Joseph Louis Cook offered his services to the United States and received a Congressional commission as a lieutenant colonel—the highest rank held by any Native American during the war.[46]

The Mohawk war chief Joseph Brant, other war chiefs, and British allies conducted numerous operations against frontier settlements in the Mohawk Valley, including the Cherry Valley massacre, destroying many villages and crops, and killing and capturing inhabitants. The Continentals retaliated and in 1779, George Washington ordered the Sullivan Campaign, led by Col. Daniel Brodhead and General John Sullivan, against the Iroquois nations to "not merely overrun, but destroy", the British-Indian alliance. They burned many Iroquois villages and stores throughout western New York; refugees moved north to Canada. By the end of the war, few houses and barns in the valley had survived the warfare.

The American Revolution was a war that caused great divide amongst the colonists between Patriots and Loyalists; it caused a divide between the colonies and Great Britain, and it also caused a rift that would break the Iroquois Confederacy. At the onset of the Revolution, the Iroquois Confederacy "Six Nations" attempted to take a stance of neutrality. However, almost inevitably, the Iroquois nations eventually had to take sides in the conflict. It is easy to see how the American Revolution would have caused conflict and confusion among the Six Nations. For years they had been used to thinking about the English and colonists as one and the same. In the American Revolution, the Iroquois Confederacy now had to deal with relationships of two governments.[47]

The Iroquois Confederation's population had changed significantly since the arrival of Europeans. Disease had reduced their population to a fraction of what it had been in the past.[48] Therefore, it was in their best interest to be on the good side of whoever would be the winning side in the war, for the winning side would dictate how future relationships would be with the Iroquois. Dealing with two governments made it hard to maintain a neutral stance, because the governments could get jealous easily if the Confederacy was interacting or trading more with one of the governments over the other, or even if there was a perception of that. Because of this challenging situation, the Six Nations had to choose sides. The Oneida and Tuscarora decided to support the Colonists, while the rest of the Iroquois league (the Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca) sided with the British and Loyalists.

There were many reasons that the Six Nations could not remain neutral and uninvolved in the Revolutionary War. One of these reasons is simply proximity; the Iroquois confederacy was too close to the action to not be involved. The Six Nations were very discontent over the encroachment of English and colonists upon their land. They were particularly concerned with the border established in the Proclamation of 1763 and Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768.[49] During the American Revolution, the authority of the government was highly contested. People tried to take advantage of this as much as possible by seeking their own profit and claiming new land. In 1775, the nations were still neutral when "a Mohawk person was killed by a continental soldier".[48]:370 Such a case shows how the Six Nations' proximity to the war drew them into it. They were concerned about being killed, and about their lands being taken from them. They could not show weakness and simply let the colonists and British do whatever they wanted. Many of the English and Colonists did not respect the treaties made in the past. "A number of His Majesty's subjects in the American colonies viewed the proclamation as a temporary prohibition which would soon give way to the opening of the area for settlement... and that it was simply a agreement to quiet the minds of the Indians".[49] The Six Nations had to take a stand to show that they would not accept such treatment, and they looked to build a relationship with a government that would respect their territory.

In addition to being in close proximity to the war, the new lifestyle and economics of the Iroquois Confederacy since the arrival of the colonists made it nearly impossible for the Iroquois to isolate themselves from the conflict. By this time, the Iroquois had become dependent upon the trade of goods from the English and colonists, and had adopted many European customs, tools, and weapons. For example, they were increasingly dependent on guns for hunting.[50] After becoming so reliant, it would have been hard to even consider cutting off trade that brought goods that were a central part of everyday life. As Barbara Graymont stated, "Their task was an impossible one to maintain neutrality. Their economies and lives had become so dependent on each other for trading goods and benefits it was impossible to ignore the conflict. Meanwhile they had to try and balance their interactions with both groups. They did not want to seem as they were favoring one group over the other, because of sparking jealousy and suspicion from either side". Furthermore, the English had made many agreements with the Six Nations over the years, yet most of Iroquois human interaction had been with the colonists. This made it a confusing situation for the Iroquois because they could not tell who the true heirs of the agreement were, and couldn't know if agreements with England would continue to be honored by the colonists if they were to win independence.

Supporting either side in the Revolutionary War was a complicated decision. Each nation individually weighed their options to come up with a final stance that ultimately broke neutrality and ended the collective agreement of the Confederation. The British were clearly the most organized, and seemingly most powerful. In many cases, the British presented the situation to the Iroquois as the colonists just being "naughty children". On the other, the Iroquois considered the fact that "the British government was three thousand miles away. This placed them at a disadvantage in attempting to enforce both the proclamation of 1763 and the Treaty at Fort Stanwix 1768 against land hungry frontiersmen."[50]:49 In other words, even though the British were the strongest and best organized, the Six Nations had concerns about whether they would truly be able to enforce their agreements from so far away.

The Iroquois also had concerns about the colonists. While the British asked for Iroquois support in the war "In 1775, the Continental congress sent a delegation to the Iroquois in Albany to ask for their neutrality in the war coming against the British".[48]:370 It had been clear in prior years that the colonists had not been respectful of the land agreements made in 1763 and 1768. In fact, the Iroquois nation was particularly concerned over the possibility of the colonists winning the war, for if a revolutionary victory were to occur, the Iroquois very much saw it as premonition of their lands being taken away.[51] Continental army officers such as George Washington had attempted to destroy the Iroquois.[48] On a contrasting note, the colonists were also those people who had formed the most relationships with the Iroquois due to proximity and trade. For the most part, the colonists and Iroquois had lived in relative peace since English arrival on the continent. The Iroquois had to determine whether their relationships with colonists were reliable, or whether the English perpetuated the relationships. They also had to determine whether there were really differences between the English and the colonists.

The war ensued, and the Iroquois broke their confederation. Hundreds of years of precedent and deciding collectively was trumped by the immensity of the Revolutionary War. The Oneida and Tuscarora decided to support the colonists, while the rest of the Iroquois league (the Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca) sided with the British and Loyalists. At the conclusion of the war the premonitions that the colonists would not respect the Iroquois' pleas came true, especially after the majority of the Six Nations decided to side with the English. In 1783 the Treaty of Paris was signed. While the treaty included peace agreements between all nations involved in the war, it made no provisions for the Iroquois.[47]


After the Revolutionary War, the ancient central fireplace of the League was re-established at Buffalo Creek. By 1811, Methodist and Episcopalian missionaries established missions to assist the Oneida and Onondaga in western New York. However, white settlers continued to move into the area. By 1821, a group of Oneida led by Eleazar Williams, son of a Mohawk woman, went to Wisconsin to buy land from the Menominee and Ho-Chunk and thus move their people further westward.[52]

Captain Joseph Brant and a group of Iroquois left New York to settle in the Province of Quebec (present-day Ontario). To partially replace the lands they had lost in the Mohawk Valley and elsewhere because of their alliance with the Crown, they were given a large land grant on the Grand River, at Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation. Brant's crossing of the river gave the original name to the area: Brant's Ford. By 1847, European settlers began to settle nearby and named the village Brantford. The original Mohawk settlement was on the south edge of the present-day city at a location still favorable for launching and landing canoes. In the 1830s many additional Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, Cayuga, and Tuscarora relocated into the Indian Territory, the Province of Upper Canada, and Wisconsin.

In the West

Many Iroquois (mostly Mohawk) and Iroquois-descended Métis people living in Lower Canada (primarily at Kahnawake) took employment with the Montreal-based North West Company during its existence from 1779 to 1821 and became voyageurs or free traders working in the North American fur trade as far west as the Rocky Mountains. They are known to have settled in the area around Jasper's House[53] (and possibly as far west as the Finlay River[54] and north as far as the Pouce Coupe and Dunvegan areas,[55] where they founded new Aboriginal communities which have persisted to the present day claiming either First Nations or Métis identity and indigenous rights. The Michel Band, Mountain Métis,[56] and Aseniwuche Winewak Nation of Canada[57] in Alberta and the Kelly Lake community in British Columbia all claim Iroquois ancestry.

20th century

League of Nations

The complex political environment which emerged in Canada with the Haudenosaunee grew out of the Anglo-American era of European colonization. At the end of the War of 1812, Britain shifted Indian affairs from the military to civilian control. With the creation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867, civil authority, and thus Indian affairs, passed to Canadian officials with Britain retaining control of military and security matters. At the turn of the century, the Canadian government began passing a series of Acts which were strenuously objected to by the Iroquois Confederacy. During World War I, an act attempted to conscript Six Nations men for military service. Under the Soldiers Resettlement Act, legislation was introduced to redistribute native land. Finally in 1920, an Act was proposed to force citizenship on "Indians" with or without their consent, which would then automatically remove their share of any tribal lands from tribal trust and make the land and the person subject to the laws of Canada.[58]

The Haudenosaunee hired a lawyer to defend their rights in the Supreme Court of Canada. The Supreme Court refused to take the case, declaring that the members of the Six Nations were British citizens. In effect, as Canada was at the time a division of the British government, it was not an international state, as defined by international law. In contrast, the Iroquois Confederacy had been making treaties and functioning as a state since 1643 and all of their treaties had been negotiated with Britain, not Canada.[58] As a result, a decision was made in 1921 to send a delegation to petition the King of England,[59] whereupon Canada's External Affairs division blocked issuing passports. In response, the Iroquois began issuing their own passports and sent Levi General,[58] the Cayuga Chief "Deskaheh,"[59] to England with their attorney. Winston Churchill dismissed their complaint claiming that it was within the realm of Canadian jurisdiction and referred them back to Canadian officials.

On 4 December 1922, Charles Stewart, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs traveled to Brantford to negotiate a settlement on the issues with the Six Nations. After the meeting, the Native delegation brought the offer to the tribal council, as was customary under Haudenosaunee law. The council agreed to accept the offer, but before they could respond, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police conducted a liquor raid on the Iroquois' Grand River territory. The siege lasted three days[58] and prompted the Haudenosaunee to send Deskaheh to Washington, DC, to meet with the chargé d'affaires of the Netherlands asking the Dutch Queen to sponsor them for membership in the League of Nations.[59] Under pressure from the British, the Netherlands reluctantly refused sponsorship.[60]

Deskaheh and the tribal attorney proceeded to Geneva and attempted to gather support. "On 27 September 1923, delegates representing Estonia, Ireland, Panama and Persia signed a letter asking for communication of the Six Nations' petition to the League's assembly," but the effort was blocked.[58] Six Nations delegates traveled to the Hague and back to Geneva attempting to gain supporters and recognition,[59] while back in Canada, the government was drafting a mandate to replace the traditional Haudenosaunee Confederacy Council with one that would be elected under the auspices of the Canadian Indian Act. In an unpublicized signing on 17 September 1924, Prime Minister Mackenzie King and Governor-General Lord Byng of Vimy signed the Order in Council, which set elections on the Six Nations reserve for 21 October. Only 26 ballots were cast.

The long-term effect of the Order was that the Canadian government had wrested control over the Haudenosaunee trust funds from the Iroquois Confederation and decades of litigation would follow.[58] In 1979, over 300 Indian chiefs visited London to oppose Patriation of the Canadian Constitution, fearing that their rights to be recognized in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 would be jeopardized. In 1981, hoping again to clarify that judicial responsibilities of treaties signed with Britain were not transferred to Canada, several Alberta Indian chiefs filed a petition with the British High Court of Justice. They lost the case but gained an invitation from the Canadian government to participate in the constitutional discussions which dealt with protection of treaty rights.[59]

US Indian termination policies

In the period between World War II and The Sixties the US government followed a policy of Indian Termination for its Native citizens. In a series of laws, attempting to mainstream tribal people into the greater society, the government strove to end the U.S. government's recognition of tribal sovereignty, eliminate trusteeship over Indian reservations, and implement state law applicability to native persons. In general the laws were expected to create taxpaying citizens, subject to state and federal taxes as well as laws, from which Native people had previously been exempt.[61]

On 13 August 1946 the Indian Claims Commission Act of 1946, Pub. L. No. 79-726, ch. 959, was passed. Its purpose was to settle for all time any outstanding grievances or claims the tribes might have against the U.S. for treaty breaches, unauthorized taking of land, dishonorable or unfair dealings, or inadequate compensation. Claims had to be filed within a five-year period, and most of the 370 complaints that were submitted[62] were filed at the approach of the 5-year deadline in August, 1951.[63]

On 2 July 1948 Congress enacted [Public Law 881] 62 Stat. 1224, which transferred criminal jurisdiction over offenses committed by and against "Indians" to the State of New York. It covered all reservations lands within the state and prohibited the deprivation of hunting and fishing rights which may have been guaranteed to "any Indian tribe, band, or community, or members thereof." It further prohibited the state from requiring tribal members to obtain fish and game licenses.[64] Within 2 years, Congress passed [Public Law 785] 64 Stat. 845, on 13 September 1950[65] which extended New York's authority to civil disputes between Indians or Indians and others within the State. It allowed the tribes to preserve customs, prohibited taxation on reservations,[66] and reaffirmed hunting and fishing rights. It also prohibited the state from enforcing judgments regarding any land disputes or applying any State Laws to tribal lands or claims prior to the effective date of the law 13 September 1952.[65] During congressional hearings on the law, tribes strongly opposed the passage, fearful that states would deprive them of their reservations. The State of New York disavowed any intention to break up or deprive tribes of their reservations and asserted that they did not have the ability to do so.[67]

On 1 August 1953, United States Congress issued a formal statement, House Concurrent Resolution 108, which was the formal policy presentation announcing the official federal policy of Indian termination. The resolution called for the "immediate termination of the Flathead, Klamath, Menominee, Potawatomi, and Turtle Mountain Chippewa, as well as all tribes in the states of California, New York, Florida, and Texas." All federal aid, services, and protection offered to Native people were to cease, and the federal trust relationship and management of reservations would end.[68] Individual members of terminated tribes were to become full United States citizens with all the rights, benefits and responsibilities of any other United States citizen. The resolution also called for the Interior Department to quickly identify other tribes who would be ready for termination in the near future.[69]

Beginning in 1953, a Federal task force began meeting with the tribes of the Six Nations. Despite tribal objections, legislation was introduced into Congress for termination.[70] The proposed legislation involved more than 11,000 Indians of the Iroquois Confederation and was divided into two separate bills. One bill dealt with the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Tuscarora tribes and the other dealt with the Seneca.[71] The arguments the Six Nations made in their hearings with committees were that their treaties showed that the United States recognized that their lands belonged to the Six Nations, not the United States and that "termination contradicted any reasonable interpretation that their lands would not be claimed or their nations disturbed" by the federal government.[72] The bill for the Iroquois Confederation died in committee without further serious consideration.[70]

On 31 August 1964,[73] H. R. 1794 An Act to authorize payment for certain interests in lands within the Allegheny Indian Reservation in New York was passed by Congress and sent to the president for signature. The bill authorized payment for resettling and rehabilitation of the Seneca Indians who were being dislocated by the construction of the Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River. Though only 127 Seneca families (about 500 people) were being dislocated, the legislation benefited the entire Seneca Nation, because the taking of the Indian land for the dam abridged a 1794 treaty agreement. In addition, the bill provided that within three years, a plan from the Interior Secretary should be submitted to Congress withdrawing all federal supervision over the Seneca Nation, though technically civil and criminal jurisdiction had lain with the State of New York since 1950.[74]

Accordingly, on 5 September 1967 a memo from the Department of the Interior announced proposed legislation was being submitted to end federal ties with the Seneca.[75][76] In 1968 a new liaison was appointed from the BIA for the tribe to assist the tribe in preparing for termination and rehabilitation.[77] The Seneca were able to hold off termination until President Nixon issued[78] his Special Message to the Congress on Indian Affairs on July, 1970.[79] Thus, no New York tribes then living in New York were terminated during this period.

In a twist of fate, one former New York Tribe did lose its federal recognition. The Emigrant Indians of New York included the Oneidas, Stockbridge-Munsee, and Brothertown Indians of Wisconsin.[80] In an effort to fight termination and force the government into recognizing their outstanding land claims from New York, the three tribes filed litigation with the Claims Commission in the 1950s.[81] They won their claim on 11 August 1964.[80] Public Law 90-93 81 Stat. 229 Emigrant New York Indians of Wisconsin Judgment Act established federal trusteeship to pay the Oneidas and Stockbridge-Munsee, effectively ending Congressional termination efforts for them. Though the law did not specifically state the Brothertown Indians were terminated, it authorized all payments to be made directly to each enrollee with special provisions for minors to be handled by the Secretary. The payments were not subject to state of federal taxes.[82] Beginning in 1978, the Brothertown Indians submitted a petition to regain federal recognition.[81] In 2012 the Department of the Interior, in the final determination on the Brothertown petition found that Congress had terminated their tribal status when it granted them citizenship in 1838 and therefore only Congress could restore their tribal status.[83] They are still seeking Congressional approval.[84]


Stone pipe (19th-century engraving)

Melting pot

The Iroquois League traditions allowed for the dead to be symbolically replaced through captives taken in "mourning wars", the blood feuds and vendettas that were an essential aspect of Iroquois culture.[85] As a way of expediting the mourning process, raids were conducted to take vengeance and seize captives. Captives were generally adopted directly by the grieving family to replace the member(s) who had been lost. This process not only allowed the Iroquois to maintain their own numbers, but also to disperse and assimilate their enemies. The adoption of conquered peoples, especially during the period of the Beaver Wars (1609-1701), meant that the Iroquois League was composed largely of naturalized members of other tribes. Cadwallader Colden wrote, "It has been a constant maxim with the Five Nations, to save children and young men of the people they conquer, to adopt them into their own Nation, and to educate them as their own children, without distinction; These young people soon forget their own country and nation and by this policy the Five Nations make up the losses which their nation suffers by the people they lose in war." By 1668, two-thirds of the Oneida village were assimilated Algonquians and Hurons. At Onondaga there were Native Americans of seven different nations and among the Seneca eleven.[86] They also adopted European captives, as did the Catholic Mohawk in settlements outside Montreal. This tradition of adoption and assimilation was common to native people of the northeast but was quite different from European settlers' notions of combat.


At the time of first European contact the Iroquois lived in a small number of large villages scattered throughout their territory. Each nation had between one and four villages at any one time, and villages were moved approximately every five to twenty years as soil and firewood were depleted.[87] These settlements were surrounded by a palisade and usually located in a defensible area such as a hill, with access to water.[88] Because of their appearance with the palisade, Europeans termed them "castles."

Within the villages the inhabitants lived in longhouses. In 1653, Dutch official and landowner Adriaen van der Donck described a Mohawk longhouse in his Description of New Netherland.

Their houses are mostly of one and the same shape, without any special embellishment or remarkable design. When building a house, large or small,—for sometimes they build them as long as some hundred feet, though never more than twenty feet wide—they stick long, thin, peeled hickory poles in the ground, as wide apart and as long as the house is to be. The poles are then bent over and fastened one to another, so that it looks like a wagon or arbor as are put in gardens. Next, strips like split laths are laid across these poles from one end to the other.… This is then well covered all over with very tough bark.… From one end of the house to the other along the center they kindle fires, and the area left open, which is also in the middle, serves as a chimney to release the smoke. Often there are sixteen or eighteen families in a house… This means that often a hundred or a hundred and fifty or more lodge in one house.

A castle might contain twenty or thirty longhouses. In addition to the "castles" the Iroquois also had smaller settlements which might be occupied seasonally by smaller groups, for example for fishing or hunting.[88]

Total population for the five nations has been estimated at 20,000 before 1634. After 1635 the population dropped to around 6,800, chiefly due to the epidemic of smallpox introduced by contact with European settlers.[87]

By the late 1700s The Iroquois were building smaller "log cabins" resembling those of the colonists, but retaining some native features, such as bark roofs with smoke holes and a central fireplace.[89]


The Iroquois are a mix of horticulturalists, farmers, fishers, gatherers and hunters, though their main diet traditionally has come from farming. The main crops they cultivated are corn, beans and squash, which were called the three sisters (De-oh-há-ko) and are considered special gifts from the Creator. These crops are grown strategically. The cornstalks grow, the bean plants climb the stalks, and the squash grow beneath, inhibiting weeds and keeping the soil moist under the shade of their broad leaves. In this combination, the soil remained fertile for several decades. The food was stored during the winter, and it lasted for two to three years. When the soil in one area eventually lost its fertility, the Haudenosaunee moved their village.

Gathering is the traditional job of the women and children. Wild roots, greens, berries and nuts were gathered in the summer. During spring, sap is tapped from the maple trees and boiled into maple syrup, and herbs are gathered for medicine. The Iroquois hunt mostly deer but also other game such as wild turkey and migratory birds. Muskrat and beaver are hunted during the winter. Fishing has also been a significant source of food because the Iroquois are located near the St. Lawrence River. They fished salmon, trout, bass, perch and whitefish until the St. Lawrence became too polluted by industry. In the spring the Iroquois netted, and in the winter fishing holes were made in the ice.[90] Allium tricoccum is also a part of traditional Iroquois cuisine.[91]


In 1604 Johannes Megapolensis described Mohawk costume.

In summer they go naked, having only their private partes covered with a patch. The children and young folks to ten, twelve and fourteen years of age go stark naked. In winter, they hang about them simply an undressed deer or bear or panther skin; or they take some beaver and otter skins, wild cat, racoon, martin, otter, mink, squirrel or such like skins…and sew some of them to others, until it is a square piece, and that is then a garment for them; or they buy of us Dutchmen two and a half ells [about 170 centimetres (5.6 ft)] of duffel, and that they hang simply about them, just as it was torn off, without sewing it.[88]

On their feet the Iroquois wore Moccasins, "true to nature in its adjustment to the foot, beautiful in its materials and finish, and durable as an article of apparel."[51]

The moccason is made of one piece of deer-skin. It is seamed up at the heel, and also in front, above the foot, leaving the bottom of the moccason without a seam. In front the deer-skin is gathered, in place of being crimped; over this part porcupine quills or beads are worked, in various patterns. The plain moccason rises several inches above the ankle…and is fastened with deer strings; but usually this part is turned down, so as to expose a part of the instep, and is ornamented with bead-work.[51]

Moccasins of a sort were also made of corn husks. In 1653 Dutch official Adriaen van der Donck wrote:

Around their waist they all [i.e.both men and women] wear a belt made of leather, whalefin, whalebone, or wampum. The men pull a length of duffel cloth—if they have it—under this belt, front and rear, and pass it between the legs. It is over half an ell [35 centimetres (14 in)] wide and nine quarter-ells [155 centimetres (61 in)] long, which leaves a square flap hanging down in front and back… Before duffel cloth was common in that country, and sometimes even now when it cannot be had, they took for that purpose some dressed leather or fur—The women also wear a length of woolen cloth of full width [165 centimetres (65 in)] and an ell and a quarter [90 centimetres (35 in)] long, which comes halfway down the leg. It is like a petticoat, but under it, next to the body, they wear a deerskin which also goes around the waist and ends in cleverly cut pointed edging and fringes. The wealthier women and those who have a liking for it wear such skirts wholly embroidered with wampum… As for covering the upper part of the body both men and women use a sheet of duffel cloth of full width, i.e. nine and a half quarter-ells, and about three ells [210 centimetres (83 in) long. It is usually worn over the right shoulder and tied in a knot around the waste and from there hangs down to the feet.[88]

By 1900s most Iroquois were wearing the same clothing as their non-Indian neighbors. Today most nations only wear their traditional clothing to ceremonies or special events.[92]

Men wore a cap with a single long feather rotating in a socket called a gustoweh. Later, feathers in the gustoweh denote the wearer's tribe by their number and positioning. The Mohawk wear three upright feathers, the Oneida two upright and one down. The Onondaga wear one feather pointing upward and another pointing down. The Cayuga have a single feather at a forty-five degree angle. The Seneca wear a single feather pointing up, and the Tuscarora have no distinguishing feathers.[93]

Writing in 1851 Morgan wrote that women's costume consisted of a skirt (gä-kä'-ah) "usually of blue broadcloth, and elaborately embroidered with bead-work. It requires two yards of cloth, which is worn with the selvedge at the top and bottom; the skirt being secured about the waist and descending nearly to the top of the moccason." Under the skirt, between the knees and the moccasins, women wore leggings (gise'-hǎ), called pantalettes by Morgan, "of red broadcloth, and ornamented with a border of beadwork around the lower edge…In ancient times the gise'-hǎ was made of deer-skin and embroidered with porcupine-quill work." An over-dress (ah-de-a'-da-we-sa) of muslin or calico was worn over the skirt, it is "gathered slightly at the waist, and falls part way down the skirt… In front it is generally buttoned with silver broaches." The blanket (e'yose) is two or three yards of blue or green broadcloth "it falls from the head or neck in natural folds the width of the cloth, as the selvedges are at the top and bottom, and it is gathered round the person like a shawl."[51]

The women wore their hair very long and tied together at the back, or "tied at the back of the head and folded into a tress of about a hand's length, like a beaver tail… they wear around the forehead a strap of wampum shaped like the headband that some was worn in olden times." "The men have a long lock hanging down, some on one side of the head, and some on both sides. On the top of their heads they have a streak of hair from the forehead to the neck, about the breadth of three fingers, and this they shorten until it is about two or three fingers long, and it stands right on end like a cock's comb or hog's bristles; on both sides of this cock's comb they cut all the hair short, except for the aforesaid locks, and they also leave on the bare places here and there small locks, such as aree in sweeping brushes and then they are in fine array."[88] This is the forerunner to what is today called a "Mohawk hairstyle."

The women did not paint their faces. The men "paint their faces red, blue, etc."[88]


Plants traditionally used by the Iroquois include Agrimonia gryposepala, which was to treat diarrhea,[94] and interrupted fern, used for blood and venereal diseases and conditions.[95] Cone flower (Echinacea), an immune system booster and treatment for respiratory disease was also known and used.[citation needed] They also give an infusion of Chelidonium majus, another plant & milk to pigs that drool and have sudden movements.[96]:p.45 They use Ranunculus acris, in that apply a poultice of the smashed plant to the chest for pains and for colds, take an infusion of the roots for diarrhea,[97]:p.320 and apply a poultice of plant fragments with another plant to the skin for excess water in the blood.[96]:p.42 Symphyotrichum novae-angliae is used in a decoction for weak skin, use a decoction of the roots and leaves for fevers, use the plant as a "love medicine",[97]:p.463 and use an infusion of whole plant and rhizomes from another plant to treat mothers with intestinal fevers,.[96]:p.65 A decoction of the roots of chicory is used as a wash and applied as a poultice to chancres and fever sores.[97]:p.476 A decoction of the root of Allium tricoccum is used to treat worms in children, and they also use the decoction as a spring tonic to "clean you out".[97]:p.281 Epigaea repens is also utilized, as they use a compound for labor pains in parturition, use a compound decoction for rheumatism, take a decoction of the leaves for indigestion, and they also take a decoction of the whole plant or roots, stalks and leaves taken for the kidneys.[97]:p.410

The Iroquois also used quinine, chamomile, ipecac, and a form of penicillin.[98]

Women in society

The Iroquois are a matriarchal Mother Clan system. No person is entitled to 'own' land, but it is believed that the Creator appointed women as stewards of the land. Traditionally, the Clan Mothers appoint leaders, as they have raised children and are therefore held to a higher regard. By the same token, if a leader does not prove sound, becomes corrupt or does not listen to the people, the Clan Mothers have the power to strip him of his leadership.

The Iroquois had a matrilineal system: women held property and hereditary leadership passed through their lines. They held dwellings, horses and farmed land, and a woman's property before marriage stayed in her possession without being mixed with that of her husband. They had separate roles but real power in the nations. The work of a woman's hands was hers to do with as she saw fit. At marriage, a young couple lived in the longhouse of the wife's family. A woman choosing to divorce a shiftless or otherwise unsatisfactory husband was able to ask him to leave the dwelling and take his possessions with him.[99]

The children of the marriage belong to their mother's clan and gain their social status through hers. Her brothers are important teachers and mentors to the children, especially introducing boys to men's roles and societies. The clans are matrilineal, that is, clan ties are traced through the mother's line. If a couple separated, the woman traditionally kept the children.[100] The chief of a clan can be removed at any time by a council of the women elders of that clan. The chief's sister was responsible for nominating his successor.[100]

Spiritual beliefs

Member of the False Face Society

Like many cultures, the Iroquois' spiritual beliefs changed over time and varied across tribes. Generally, the Iroquois believed in numerous deities, including the Great Spirit, the Thundererer, and the Three Sisters (the spirits of beans, maize, and squash). The Great Spirit was thought to have created plants, animals, and humans to control "the forces of good in nature", and to guide ordinary people.[101] Orenda was the Iroquoian name for the magical potence found in people and their environment.[102]

Sources provide different stories about Iroquois creation beliefs. Brascoupé and Etmanskie focus on the first person to walk the earth, called the Skywoman or Aientsik. Aientsik's daughter Tekawerahkwa gave birth to twins, Tawiskaron, who created vicious animals and river rapids, while Okwiraseh created "all that is pure and beautiful".[103] After a battle where Okwiraseh defeated Tawiskaron, Tawiskaron was confined to "the dark areas of the world", where he governed the night and destructive creatures.[103] Other scholars present the "twins" as the Creator and his brother, Flint.[104] The Creator was responsible for game animals, while Flint created predators and disease. Saraydar (1990) suggests the Iroquois do not see the twins as polar opposites but understood their relationship to be more complex, noting "Perfection is not to be found in gods or humans or the worlds they inhabit."[105]

Descriptions of Iroquois spiritual history consistently refer to dark times of terror and misery prior to the Iroquois Confederacy, ended by the arrival of the Great Peacemaker. Tradition asserts that the Peacemaker demonstrated his authority as the Creator's messenger by climbing a tall tree above a waterfall, having the people cut down the tree, and reappearing the next morning unharmed.[105] The Peacemaker restored mental health to a few of the most "violent and dangerous men", Ayonhwatha and Thadodaho, who then helped him bear the message of peace to others. [106]

After the arrival of the Europeans, some Iroquois became Christians, among them the first Native American Saint, Kateri Tekakwitha, a young woman of Mohawk-Algonquin parents. The Seneca sachem Handsome Lake, also known as Ganeodiyo,[107] introduced a new religious system to the Iroquois in the late 18th century,[108] which incorporated Quaker beliefs along with traditional Iroquoian culture.[101] Handsome Lake's teachings include a focus on parenting, appreciation of life, and peace.[107] A key aspect of Handsome Lake's teachings is the principle of equilibrium, wherein each person's talents combined into a functional community. By the 1960s, at least 50% of Iroquois followed this religion.[101]

Dreams play a significant role in Iroquois spirituality, providing information about a person's desires and prompting individuals to fulfill dreams. To communicate upward, humans can send prayers to spirits by burning tobacco.[101]

Iroquois ceremonies are primarily concerned with farming, healing, and thanksgiving. Key festivals correspond to the agricultural calendar, and include Maple, Planting, Strawberry, Green Maize, Harvest, and Mid-Winter (or New Year's), which is held in early February.[101] The ceremonies were given by the Creator to the Iroquois to balance good with evil.[105]

During healing ceremonies, a carved "False Face Mask" is worn to represent spirits in a tobacco-burning and prayer ritual. False Face Masks are carved in living trees, then cut free to be painted and decorated.[109] False Faces represent grandfathers of the Iroquois, and are thought to reconnect humans and nature and to frighten illness-causing spirits.[107] The False Face Society continues today among modern Iroquois.

Condolence ceremonies are conducted by the Iroquois for both ordinary and important people, but most notably when sachems died. Such ceremonies were still held on Iroquois reservations as late as the 1970s.[101] After death, the soul is thought to embark on a journey, undergo a series of ordeals, and arrive in the sky world. This journey is thought to take one year, during which the Iroquois mourn for the dead. After the mourning period, a feat is held to celebrate the soul's arrival in the skyworld.

"Keepers of the faith" are part-time specialists who conduct religious ceremonies. Both men and women can be appointed as keepers of the faith by tribe elders.[101]


At least as of 1850, the Iroquois celebrated six major festivals throughout the year.[51] These combined a spiritual component, a feast, a chance to celebrate together, sports and entertainment— dancing. These celebrations were oriented to the seasons but celebrated based on the cycle of nature and not fixed on specific days. Before each festival a council was convened by one of the "keepers of the faith" at which the people publicly confessed their faults and promised to do better.

Thanks to the Maple (O-tä-de-none’-ne-o) was a one-day festival celebrated in each village when the sap of the sugar maple trees first began to flow in the spring— mid to late March. In the morning the matrons of the village began preparation of the feast while the remaining people celebrated with sports and games. Around noon the village assembled in a council at which speeches were made offering thanks to the maple for its bounty. After the council concluded the "Great Feather Dance" was held, which lasted for about an hour. This dance was performed by a select society in full regalia reserved for the occasion. After the Feather Dance there were social dances in which the entire village participated. The festival concluded with the burning of tobacco.

The Planting Festival (A-yent’-wä-tä) was next in the year. This was also a one-day festival at planting time. This festival included the same general set of activities as the "Thanks to the Maple" festival. After this, if the crops weren't receiving sufficient rainfall a special ceremony was held to ask Hé-no, the spirit of thunder, to bring rain. This ceremony was similar to the previous ones except that it included special invocations to Hé-no and singing, called the A-do’-weh, featuring impromptu songs.

The Berry Festival (Ha-nun-dä’-yo) was celebrated when the strawberries were ripe–June in most Iroquois territory. This, again, was a one-day festival similar to the previous two. A feast of strawberries mixed with maple sugar was the special event of the feast. A similar festival was sometimes held when the whortleberries were ripe.

The Green Corn Festival (Ah-dake’-wä-o) was a four-day festival celebrated when the green corn first became fit to use. The first day consisted of speeches, the Feather Dance, and an address of thanksgiving, followed by the burning of tobacco and a few other dances, and then the feast of succotash, possibly accompanied by soup or hominy. The second day began with a thanksgiving dance (Gä-na’-o-uh), consisting of a series of short pieces interspersed with speeches of thanksgiving. After the thanksgiving dance there were one or two other dances, followed by the feast. The third morning was devoted to the thanksgiving concert (A-do’-weh) and the inevitable speeches, a few dances, and the feast. On the fourth day a gambling game called the "Peach-stone Game" (Gus-ga’-a) concluded the festivities.

The Harvest Festival (Da-yo-nun’-neo-quä na De-o-ha’-ko) was another four-day celebrated in the fall to give thanks for the harvest. The name means "Thanksgiving to Our Supporters". De-o-ha’-ko is usually translated "our supporters", and refers to the "three sisters" of corn, beans, and squash which served as the chief source of food for the Iroquois. This was similar in form to the Green Corn Festival, with celebration continuing throughout the night.

The Mid-winter festival (Gi’-ye-wä-no-us-quä-go-wä), translated as "The supreme belief") ushered in the new year. This festival was held around the end of January to early February, depending on the new moon. This festival was seven days long.

On the first day two "keepers of the faith" made the rounds of the village dressed in bear or buffalo skins. They had wreaths of corn husks around their head and on their wrists and ankles. At each house they formally addressed the occupants and struck a corn pounder on the floor to assure silence. Morgan provides an example of the speech they made:

Listen, listen, listen: — The ceremonies which the Great Spirit has commanded us to perform, are about to commence. Prepare your houses. Clear away the rubbish. Drive out all evil animals. We wish nothing to hinder or obstruct the coming observances. We enjoin upon every one to obey our requirements. Should any of your friends be taken sick and die, we command you not to mourn for them, nor allow any of your friends to mourn. But lay the body aside and enjoy the coming ceremonies with us. When they are over, we will mourn with you.[51]:pp.200–201

The visitors then sang a short song of thanksgiving and departed. In the afternoon the visit was repeated with a different speech.

Also on the first day the white dog was strangled. This was a specially-selected pure-white dog with no physical blemish. The officiants were careful not to break any bones or shed any blood. The dog's body was then spotted with red paint and ornamented with feathers and ribbons and hung with gifts contributed by each person a string of white wampum was placed around its neck. The dog was then hung by its neck about eight feet off the ground on the prong of a pole. The dog would hang there throughout the festival until the morning of the fifth day when it would be burned with much ceremony. The dog was chosen because his close relationship with people made him a trusty messenger to carry the peoples' petitions to Hä-wen-ne’-yu. More recently a white basket substitutes for the dog.[110]

On the second, third, and fourth days the people visited the houses of their neighbors in groups dressed in their finest clothes. On the second day the people were preceded by two keepers of the faith, now dressed and painted as warriors, who recited the speeches from the previous day. Then using shovels or paddles they stirred the ashes on the hearth sprinkled them back three times, offering a prayer of thanksgiving for another year of life. On the third and fourth days groups of dancers made the rounds and danced at each house. Each group danced a different dance: The Feather Dance, The Fish Dance, The Trotting Dance, and so on. On those days also the young boys of the village formed a "thieving party", going from house to house begging supplies for a feast. If the householders gave them a gift judged to be acceptable the boys performed a dance and left. If the presents were not given or were unacceptable the boys stole whatever they could take without being detected. If they were caught they gave the items back; if not the stolen items were collected and could be ransomed back later by their owners. The boys had a feast and dance on the proceeds.

Another activity of the Mid-winter Festival was the guessing of dreams. A person who had had a dream might wander house to house and request that the inhabitants guess its meaning. If the guess was acceptable to the dreamer he used it as a guide to future action.

The activities of the first four days didn't include a feast; families ate and held dances in private homes. Also sports were enjoyed during the days, particularly the "Snow-snake" game.

On the morning of the fifth day the body of the white dog was taken down and ceremonially burned. The burning freed the spirit of the dog, which had stayed close to the body during the festival, and it could then ascend to Hä-wen-ne’-yu. The burning was followed by "the great thanksgiving address of the Iroquois."

The sixth day was observed with a Thanksgiving Dance, and the seventh with the A-do’-weh, followed by the Peach-stone Game.

Games and sports

The favorite sport of the Iroquois was lacrosse (O-tä-dä-jish′-quä-äge in Seneca).[51] This version was played between two teams of six or eight players, made up of members of two sets of clans (Wolf, Bear, Beaver, and Turtle on one side vs. Deer, Snipe, Heron, and Hawk on the other among the Senecas). The goals were two sets of poles roughly 450 yards (410 m) apart.[note 1] The poles were about 10 feet (3.0 m) high and placed about 15 feet (4.6 m) apart.[note 2] A goal was scored by carrying or throwing a deer-skin ball between the goal posts using netted sticks— touching the ball with hands was prohibited. The game was played to a score of five or seven. The modern version of lacrosse remains popular as of 2015.[111]

A popular winter game was the snow-snake game.[51] The "snake" was a hickory pole about 5–7 feet (1.5–2.1 m) long and about .25 inches (0.64 cm) in diameter, turned up slightly at the front and weighted with lead. The game was played between two sides of up to six players each, often boys, but occasionally between the men of two clans. The snake, or Gawa′sa, was held by placing the index finger against the back end and balancing it on the thumb and other fingers. It was not thrown but slid across the surface of the snow. The side whose snake went the farthest scored one point. Other snakes from the same side which went farther than any other snake of the opposing side also scored a point; the other side scored nothing. This was repeated until one side scored the number of points which had been agreed to for the game, usually seven or ten.

The Peach-stone game (Guskä′eh) was a gambling game in which the clans bet against each other.[51] Traditionally it was played on the final day of the Green Corn, Harvest, and Mid-winter festivals. The game was played using a wooden bowl about one foot in diameter and six peach-stones (pits) ground to oval shape and burned black on one side. A "bank" of beans, usually 100, was used to keep score and the winner was the side who won them all. Two players sat on a blanket-covered platform raised a few feet off the floor. To play the peach stones were put into the bowl and shaken. Winning combinations were five of either color or six of either color showing.

Players started with five beans each from the bank. The starting player shook the bowl; if he shook a five the other player paid him one bean, if a six five beans. If he shook either he got to shake again. If he shook anything else the turn passed to his opponent. All his winnings were handed over to a "manager" or "managers" for his side. If a player lost all of his beans another player from his side took his place and took five beans from the bank. Once all beans had been taken from the bank the game continued, but with the draw of beans now coming from the winnings of the player's side, which were kept out of sight so that no one but the managers knew how the game was going. The game was finished when one side had won all the beans.

The game sometimes took quite a while to play, depending on the starting number of beans, and games lasting more than a day were common.

Naming conventions

Each clan has a group of personal names which may be used to name members. The clan mother is responsible for keeping track of those names not in use, which may then be reused to name infants. When a child becomes an adult he takes a new "adult" name in place of his "baby" name. Some names are reserved for chiefs or faith keepers, and when a person assumes that office he takes the name in a ceremony in which he is considered to "resuscitate" the previous holder. If a chief resigns or is removed he gives up the name and resumes his previous one.[112]


Although the Iroquois are sometimes mentioned as examples of groups who practiced cannibalism, the evidence is mixed as to whether such a practice could be said to be widespread among the Six Nations, and to whether it was a notable cultural feature. Some anthropologists have found evidence of ritual torture and cannibalism at Iroquois sites, for example, among the Onondaga in the sixteenth century.[113][114] However, other scholars, most notably anthropologist William Arens in his controversial book, The Man-Eating Myth, have challenged the evidence, suggesting the human bones found at sites point to funerary practices, asserting that if cannibalism was practiced among the Iroquois, it was not widespread.[115] Modern anthropologists seem to accept the probability that cannibalism did exist among the Iroquois,[116] with Thomas Abler describing the evidence from the Jesuit Relations and archaeology as making a "case for cannibalism in early historic strong that it cannot be doubted.".[117] Scholars are also urged to remember the context for a practice that now shocks the modern Western society. Sanday reminds us that the ferocity of the Iroquois' rituals "cannot be separated from the severity of conditions ... where death from hunger, disease, and warfare became a way of life".[118]

The missionaries Johannes Megapolensis and François-Joseph Bressani, and the fur trader Pierre-Esprit Radisson present first-hand accounts of cannibalism among the Mohawk. A common theme is ritulalistic roasting and eating the heart of a captive who has been tortured and killed.[88] "To eat your enemy is to perform an extreme form of physical dominance."[119]



As noted by Barbara Graymont in her 1972 work on the Iroquois, they referred to their League as Ganonsyoni, meaning "The Lodge Extended Lengthwise", that is, a lodge that is "spread out far". It referred to their lodges or longhouses, the traditional dwellings, and their total territory of the Five Nations.[3][note1 1]

Historians and anthropologists have estimated the Iroquois League was formed at dates ranging from 1450 to 1600. Iroquois tradition follows the earlier date, and they believe the League was formed by two men, both adopted into the Mohawk nation. Deganawida was a Huron adopted by the Mohawk. Hiawatha, his spokesman, was an Onondaga who was also adopted by the Mohawk.

The Iroquois call themselves the Haudenosaunee, which means "People of the Longhouse", or more accurately, "They Are Building a Long House". According to their tradition, The Great Peacemaker introduced the name at the time of the formation of the League. It implies that the nations of the League should live together as families in the same longhouse.[120]

Traditionally, Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) are the guardians of the eastern door, as they are located in the east closest to the Hudson, and the Seneca (Onöndowága) the guardians of the western door of the "tribal longhouse", the territory they controlled in present-day New York. Onoñda'gega' (Onondaga), whose homeland is in the center of Haudenosaunee territory, are keepers of the League's (both literal and figurative) central flame.

The French colonists referred to the Haudenosaunee as Iroquois, derived from terms used by the Algonquian-speaking tribes they first encountered along the Atlantic Coast.[120] The name has two possible origins:

  • French transliteration of irinakhoiw, a Huron (Wyandot) name for the Haudenosaunee. They used a derogatory term, meaning "black snakes" or "real adders".
  • French linguists, such as Henriette Walter, and anthropologists, such as Dean Snow, support the following explanation. Prior to French colonization, Basque fishermen had traded with the Algonquins along the Atlantic coast, who were historic enemies of the Haudenosaunee. The above scholars think "Iroquois" was derived from a Basque expression, hilokoa, meaning the "killer people". Because there is no "L" sound in the Algonquian languages of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence region, the tribes used the name Hirokoa for the Haudenosaunee. They used this in the pidgin language for communicating with the Basque. The later French colonists transliterated the word according to their own phonetic rules and arrived at "Iroquois".[22]


The first five nations listed below formed the original Five Nations (listed from east to west, as they were oriented to the sunrise); the Tuscarora became the sixth nation in 1720.

English word Iroquoian words Meaning 17th/18th century location
Mohawk Kanien'kehá:ka "People of the Great Flint" Mohawk River
Oneida Onayotekaono "People of the Standing Stone" Oneida Lake
Onondaga Onöñda'gega' "People of the Hills" Onondaga Lake
Cayuga Guyohkohnyoh "People of the Great Swamp" Cayuga Lake
Seneca Onöndowága "People of the Great Hill" Seneca Lake and Genesee River
Tuscarora1 Ska:rù:rę' "Hemp Gatherers"[121] From North Carolina2

1 Not one of the original Five Nations; joined 1720.
2 Settled between the Oneida and Onondaga.

Iroquois Five Nations c. 1650
Iroquois Five Nations c. 1650
Iroquois Six Nations c. 1720
Iroquois Six Nations c. 1720


Within each of the six nations, people belonged to a number of matrilineal clans. The number of clans varies by nation, currently from three to eight, with a total of nine different clan names.

Current clans
Seneca Cayuga Onondaga Tuscarora Oneida Mohawk
Wolf (Hoñnat‘haiioñ'n‘) Wolf Wolf (Hothahi:ionih) Wolf (Θkwarì•nę) Wolf (Thayú:ni) Wolf (Okwáho)
Bear (Hodidjioiñi’'g’) Bear Bear (Ohgwai:ih) Bear (Uhčíhręˀ) Bear (Ohkwá:li) Bear (Ohkwá:ri)
Turtle (Hadiniǎ‘'děñ‘) Turtle Turtle (Hanya'dëñh) Turtle (Ráˀkwihs) Turtle (A'no:wál) Turtle (A'nó:wara)
Sandpiper/Snipe (Hodi'ne`si'iu') Sandpiper Snipe (Odihnesi:ioh) Sandpiper (Tawístawis)
Deer (Hadinioñ'gwaiiu') Deer (De'odijinaindönda') Deer (Kà?wí:ñu)
Beaver (Hodigěn’'gegā’) Beaver (Hona'gaia'gih) Beaver (Rakinęhá•ha•ˀ)
Heron (Hodidoion’’gā Heron Heron
Hawk/Eagle (Hadi`shwěn’’gaiiu’ Hawk (Degaiadahkwa')
Eel (Ohgönde:na') Eel (Akunęhukwatíha•ˀ)

Population history

According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life, The Iroquois Confederacy had 10,000 people at its peak, but by the 18th century, their population had decreased to 4,000, recovering only to 7,000 by 1910.[122]

According to data compiled in 1995 by Doug George-Kanentiio, a total of 51,255 Six Nations people lived in Canada. These included 15,631 Mohawk in Quebec; 14,051 Mohawk in Ontario; 3,970 Oneida in Ontario; and a total of 17,603 of the Six Nations at the Grand River Reserve in Ontario.[123] More recently according to the Six Nations Elected Council, some 12,436 on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, the largest First Nations reserve in Canada,[124] as of December 2014 and 26,034 total in Canada.[125]

In 1995, tribal registrations among the Six Nations in the United States numbered about 30,000 in total, with the majority of 17,566 in New York. The remainder were more than 10,000 Oneida in Wisconsin, and about 2200 Seneca-Cayuga in Oklahoma.[123] As the nations individually determine their rules for membership or citizenship, they report the official numbers. (Some traditional members of the nations refuse to be counted.)[123] There is no federally recognized Iroquois nation or tribe, nor are any Native Americans enrolled as Iroquois.

In the 2000 United States census, 80,822 people identified as having Iroquois ethnicity (which is similar to identifying as European), with 45,217 claiming only Iroquois ancestry. There are the several reservations in New York: Cayuga Nation of New York(~450[citation needed],) St. Regis Mohawk Reservation (3248 in 2014),[126] Onondaga Reservation (473 in 2014),[126] Oneida Indian Nation (~ 1000[citation needed]), Seneca Nation of New York (~8000[citation needed]) and the Tuscarora Reservation (1100 in 2010[citation needed]). Some lived at the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin on the reservation there counting some 21,000 according to the 2000 census. Seneca-Cayuga Nation in Oklahoma has more than 5,000 people in 2011.[127] In the 2010 Census, 81,002 persons identified as Iroquois, and 42,461 as Iroquois only across the United States.[128] Including the Iroquois in Canada, the total population numbered over 125,000 as of 2009.[122]

Famous Seneca chief, Red Jacket, political negotiator and critic of European religion, speaking to crowd
Seneca chief Cornplanter
Joseph Brant, painted by the American artist Gilbert Stuart

Prominent individuals


Mohawk leader John Smoke Johnson (right) with John Tutela and Young Warner, two other Six Nations War of 1812 veterans. Photo: July 1882

The Grand Council of the Six Nations is an assembly of 56 Hoyenah (chiefs) or sachems. Today, the seats on the Council are distributed among the Six Nations as follows:

  • 14 Onondaga
  • 10 Cayuga
  •   9 Oneida
  •   9 Mohawk
  •   8 Seneca
  •   6 Tuscarora

When anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan studied the Grand Council in the 19th century, he interpreted it as a central government. This interpretation became influential, but Richter argues that while the Grand Council served an important ceremonial role, it was not a government in the sense that Morgan thought.[7][8][9] According to this view, Iroquois political and diplomatic decisions are made on the local level, and are based on assessments of community consensus. A central government that develops policy and implements it for the people at large is not the Iroquois model of government.

Unanimity in public acts was essential to the Council. In 1855, Minnie Myrtle observed that no Iroquois treaty was binding unless it was ratified by 75% of the male voters and 75% of the mothers of the nation.[129] In revising Council laws and customs, a consent of two-thirds of the mothers was required.[129] The need for a double supermajority to make major changes made the Confederacy a de facto consensus government.[130]

The women traditionally held real power, particularly the power to veto treaties or declarations of war.[129] The members of the Grand Council of Sachems were chosen by the mothers of each clan. If any leader failed to comply with the wishes of the women of his tribe and the Great Law of Peace, the mother of his clan could demote him, a process called "knocking off the horns". The deer antlers, an emblem of leadership, were removed from his headgear, thus returning him to private life.[129][131]

Councils of the mothers of each tribe were held separately from the men's councils. The women used men as runners to send word of their decisions to concerned parties, or a woman could appear at the men's council as an orator, presenting the view of the women. Women often took the initiative in suggesting legislation.[129]

Wampum belts

Chiefs of the Six Nations explaining their wampum belts to Horatio Hale, 1871
Haudenosaunee flag created in the 1980s. It is based on the "Hiawatha Wampum Belt ... created from purple and white wampum beads centuries ago to symbolize the union forged when the former enemies buried their weapons under the Great Tree of Peace."[132] It represents the original five nations that were united by the Peacemaker and Hiawatha. The tree symbol in the center represents an Eastern White Pine, the needles of which are clustered in groups of five.[133]

The term "wampum" refers to beads made from purple and white mollusk shells. Species used to make wampum include the highly prized quahog clam (Mercenaria mercenaria) which produces the famous purple colored beads. For white colored beads the shells from the channeled whelk (Busycon canaliculatum), knobbed whelk (Busycon carica), lightning whelk (Busycon sinistrum), and snow whelk (Busycon Laeostomum) are used.[134]

Wampum was primarily used to make wampum belts by the Iroquois. Wampum belts are used to signify the importance of a specific message being presented. Treaty making often involved wampum belts to signify the importance of the treaty. A famous example is "The Two Row Wampum" or "Guesuenta", meaning "it brightens our minds", which was originally presented to the Dutch settlers, and then French, representing a canoe and a sailboat moving side-by-side along the river of life, not interfering with the other's course. All non-Native settlers are, by associations, members of this treaty.

"The Covenant Belt" was presented to the Iroquois at the signing of the Canandaigua Treaty. The belt has a design of thirteen human figures representing symbolically the Thirteen Colonies of the United States. The house and the two figures directly next to the house represent the Iroquois people and the symbolic longhouse. The figure on the left of the house represent the Seneca Nation who are the symbolic guardians of the western door (western edge of Iroquois territory) and the figure to the right of the house represents the Mohawk who are the keepers of the eastern door (eastern edge of Iroquois territory).[134]

The Hiawatha belt is the national belt of the Iroquois and is represented in the Iroquois Confederacy flag. The belt has four squares and a tree in the middle which represents the original five nations of the Iroquois. Going from left to right the squares represent the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida and Mohawk. The Onondaga are represented by an eastern white pine which represents the Tree of Peace. Traditionally the Onondaga are the peace keepers of the confederacy. The placement of the nations on the belt represents the actually geographical distribution of the six nations over their shared territory, with the Seneca in the far west and the Mohawk in the far east of Iroquois territory.[134]

Influence on the United States

Historians in the 20th century have suggested the Iroquois system of government influenced the development of the United States's government. Contact between the leaders of the English colonists and the Iroquois started with efforts to form an alliance via the use of treaty councils. Prominent individuals such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were often in attendance. Bruce Johansen proposes that the Iroquois had a representative form of government.[135] The Six Nations' governing committee was elected by the men and women of the tribe, one member from each of the six nations. Giving each member the same amount of authority in the council ensured no man received too much power, providing some of the same effect as the United States's future system of checks and balances.

Consensus has not been reached on how influential the Iroquois model was to the development of United States' documents such as the Articles of Confederation and United States Constitution.[136] The influence thesis has been discussed by historians such as Donald Grinde[137] and Bruce Johansen.[138] In 1988, the United States Congress passed a resolution to recognize the influence of the Iroquois League upon the Constitution and Bill of Rights.[139] In 1987, Cornell University held a conference on the link between the Iroquois' government and the U.S. Constitution.[140]

Scholars such as Jack N. Rakove challenge the thesis. Stanford University historian Rakove writes, "The voluminous records we have for the constitutional debates of the late 1780s contain no significant references to the Iroquois" and notes that there are ample European precedents to the democratic institutions of the United States.[141] Historian Francis Jennings noted that supporters of the thesis frequently cite the following statement by Benjamin Franklin, made in a letter from Benjamin Franklin to James Parker in 1751:[142] "It would be a very strange thing, if six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such a Union … and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies," but he disagrees that it establishes influence. Rather, he thinks Franklin was promoting union against the "ignorant savages" and called the idea "absurd".[143]

The anthropologist Dean Snow has stated that although Franklin's Albany Plan may have drawn inspiration from the Iroquois League, there is little evidence that either the Plan or the Constitution drew substantially from that source. He argues that "...such claims muddle and denigrate the subtle and remarkable features of Iroquois government. The two forms of government are distinctive and individually remarkable in conception."[144]

Similarly, the anthropologist Elizabeth Tooker has concluded that "there is virtually no evidence that the framers borrowed from the Iroquois." She argues that the idea is a myth resulting from a claim made by linguist and ethnographer J.N.B. Hewitt that was exaggerated and misunderstood after his death in 1937.[145] According to Tooker, the original Iroquois constitution did not involve representative democracy and elections; deceased chiefs' successors were selected by the most senior woman within the hereditary lineage in consultation with other women in the tribe.[145]

International relations

The Haudenosaunee government has issued passports since 1923, when Haudenosaunee authorities issued a passport to Cayuga statesman Deskaheh (Levi General) to travel to the League of Nations headquarters.[146]

More recently, passports have been issued since 1997.[147] Before 2001 these were accepted by various nations for international travel, but with increased security concerns across the world since the September 11 attacks this is no longer the case.[148] The Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team was allowed by the U.S. to travel on their own passports to an international lacrosse tournament in England after the personal intervention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on July 14, 2010, after previously being refused. But, the British government refused to recognize the Iroquois passports and denied the team members entry into the United Kingdom.[149][150]

The Onondaga Nation spent $1.5 million on a subsequent upgrade to passports designed to meet 21st century international security requirements.[151]

The Iroquois Nationals are considered a country-level organization in international lacrosse competition. It is the only international sport in which the Iroquois tribes field a team.

The Grand Council of the Iroquois Confederacy declared war on Germany in 1917 during World War I and again in 1942 in World War II.[152]

Modern communities

Iroquois in Buffalo, New York, 1914


United States

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Barbara Graymont (1972). The Iroquois in the American Revolution (1st Paperback ed.). Syracuse University Press. pp. 14–15. ISBN 0-8156-0116-6. Retrieved 5 September 2013. It was a confederation based on kinship—a symbolic household. They called their confederation Ganonsyoni, which means "The Lodge Extended Lengthwise", that is, a lodge that is "spread out far". All individuals and all the tribes of the Confederacy were considered as one family living together in one lodge. The Mohawks, dwelling furthest east, were Keepers of the Western Door. The Onondagas, situated in the center, were the Fire Keepers as well as the Wampum Keepers. Onondaga was therefore, the capital, where the Grand Council was held and wampum records were kept. The local clan chiefs of each tribe meeting together as a unit were the federal chiefs of the League. The Mohawks, Onondagas, and Senecas were the Elder Brothers; The Oneidas and Cayugas, the Younger Brothers. The younger and elder brethren sat on opposite sides of the lodge and counseled across the fire with each other. The Onondagas sat in the middle and kept the balance between the two sides.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  1. Morgan: "eighty rods"
  2. "three rods"


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  2. Daeg de Mott, D. K. (2009). "Iroquois". In Gall, Timothy L.; Hobby, Jeneen (eds.). Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life, Vol. 2 (2nd ed.). Detroit: Gale. pp. 304–310. ISBN 978-1414448909. Retrieved 12 April 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Graymont, Barbara. The Iroquois in the American Revolution (1972), pages 14-15
  4. Zeisberger, David. Indian Dictionary: English, German, Iroquois—The Onondaga and Algonquin—The Delaware. Harvard University Press, 1887. ISBN 1104253518, pp. 23 and 97. Goano means "big", Ganochsajeh means "roof" and Eroni means "people." As such, "Big-roof-people" or "People-who-live-under-the big-roof", in reference to the longhouse.
  5. Encyclopedia of the Haudenosaunee. Greenwood Publishing Group. 2000. p. 135. ISBN 978-0-313-30880-2. Retrieved 2010-04-02.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  8. 8.0 8.1 Fenton, Great Law and the Longhouse, 4–5.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Shannon, Iroquois Diplomacy, 72–73.
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